Catholic Bishops Express Concerns over Criminalization of Prayer and Outreach Activities Outside Abortion Clinics in UK
The Catholic bishops in the United Kingdom have raised concerns about new legislation that criminalizes prayer and outreach activities outside abortion clinics in England and Wales. They argue that this law unfairly discriminates against people of faith. Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, the lead bishop for life issues in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, expressed his lament on March 15, stating that engaging in prayer, holding certain beliefs, or peacefully witnessing to the Gospel of life within designated “zones” could now be considered criminal offenses.
Throughout the bill’s journey through Parliament, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference consistently emphasized its concerns regarding the proposed legislation, asserting that it amounts to discrimination and disproportionately impacts individuals with religious beliefs. On March 7, the House of Commons approved the creation of “buffer zones” across the country, imposing strict bans on behaviors that may interfere with a person’s access to or provision of abortion services near these facilities.
The law’s broad provisions encompass a wide range of activities, including silent prayer, and violation of the law can result in fines, potentially without a set limit. Several individuals have already faced penalties for breaching local buffer zones. For example, Adam Smith-Connor, who had experienced the loss of his unborn son through abortion decades earlier, was fined for praying outside an abortion facility under a protection order in Bournemouth in November 2022.
In another incident, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, and Father Sean Gough, a priest from the Archdiocese of Birmingham, were acquitted in February of all charges brought against them for allegedly violating a Birmingham council protection order by praying in front of an abortion clinic. These charges were related to separate incidents. Nevertheless, the day before the parliamentary vote, Vaughan-Spruce was detained for praying again outside the same abortion facility.
The bishops of England and Wales are particularly troubled by the rejection of an amendment that would have protected silent prayer and consensual communication within the affected buffer zones. This amendment failed with a vote of 299-116.
In their statement, the bishops emphasize the importance of religious freedom for both society and individual well-being. They affirm that religious freedom includes the right to publicly express one’s beliefs through witnessing, prayer, and charitable outreach. They argue that this new law has the potential to hinder these freedoms, thereby restricting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Additionally, the bishops express concerns that such zones could be expanded to cover other topics, raising serious questions about the extent of the state’s powers over individuals in a free society, regardless of whether they hold religious beliefs or not.
Paul Coleman, executive director of the religious freedom advocacy group ADF International, describes these buffer zones as “censorship zones.” In a Newsweek essay published on March 10, he asserts that the law aims to use government censorship to suppress a specific viewpoint, empowering the police to question and arrest individuals based solely on their thoughts.
While condemning harassment and intimidation of women, the bishops maintain that there is little evidence to suggest that participants engaging in vigil activities exhibit such behaviors. They argue that the new law is overly broad, disproportionate, and unnecessary.
Simultaneously, the bishops stress that peaceful prayer and outreach outside abortion facilities are integral to Christian witness and practice. They assert that Christian prayer cannot be confined solely to places of worship or private spaces; it is a continuous calling for Christians in every moment of the day.
Quoting Jesus’ “greatest commandment” to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, the bishops contend that this new law potentially hinders individuals’ ability to respond to this call and duty. They believe that Christians have a special responsibility to show regard for the most vulnerable and marginalized, and they ask, “Who can be more vulnerable than a baby in the womb?” The bishops state that as Catholics, they firmly believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception and that harming or denying life in these circumstances goes against the religious and cultural values of the faithful.